Friday, January 24, 2014

"Their Life's Work"

For Pittsburghers of a certain age, the Super Bowl Steelers of the 1970s were sports nirvana.  Couple the Super Steelers with the Pirates of the 1970s, who won five division championships and two World Series (1971 and 1979), and you have the "City of Champions."  I still remember fondly that in December 1979 the Sports Illustrated Sportsmen of the Year award went to Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell.  The picture of them, in their respective uniforms, in front of the blast furnace at the J&L South Side Works steel mill, is truly iconic Pittsburgh.

(True story:   My dad got me a summer job in the J&L South Side works in 1976 -- which is a 12 week story in itself.  Several of the men I worked with in the mill that summer were in that Sports Illustrated photograph.)

(Another true story:  As a young priest at St. Therese Parish in Munhall, in the Steel Valley, around 1980 I began a sermon on the 12 apostles with the 500+ school children by asking for the names and numbers of the Steelers.  They kids knew them all.  75, 12, 32, 58, 59, 88, 82, 20, 52, 47, even down-in-the-weeds 63, 68, 5, 78, 84, 24, 34, 33, 57, 72,  and on and on.  Can you match the players with their numbers?  By the way, the kids knew their apostles too!)

So when Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recommended a book about the Super Steelers last fall, I bought it and devoured it.  Gary M. Pomerantz covered the Washington football team in the 1980s for the Washington Post, and is an author of several books.  Why he picked the 1970s "Steeler empire" to write about is baffling to me.  But he has done an excellent job.

But Their Life's Work not just a history of wins and losses, X's and O's, old war stories from the gridiron.  He contrasts what happened 40+ years ago (that long ago?!!!) with "where are they now and what are they thinking" interviews and insights.  Bradshaw, who allegedly couldn't spell CAT if you spotted him the C and the A, now the FOX NFL analyst and motivational speaker.  Swann, the ballet dancer on the field and political schmoozer off.  Stallworth, in the shadow of Swann yet now the owner of multi-million dollar companies and classy minority owner of the Steelers.  Webster, the over-achieving center who never could figure out "his life's work" who died homeless and broke.  Gilliam, the supremely talented and troubled quarterback.  Noll, the aloof coach to the end, whose "Chuck-isms" still guide many players.  The Rooneys, among the "first families" in the history of Pittsburgh, not angels but very human.  And Mean Joe Greene, the rock of the "Steeler empire," the "sheriff of the locker room," and consummate gentleman to this day.  

His sub-title says it:  The Brotherhood of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, Then and Now.  

He could have also titled it, "time waits for no football player."  Some former enemies become friends, like Franco Harris and Phil Villaiano of the hated Oakland Raiders.  Some become family, like Franco and the head of "Franco's Italian Army," Al Vento.  Some are forced to move on, as when Dan Rooney fired his brother Art in 1986 as head of scouting.  And all the players acknowledge the toll brutal pro football takes on their bodies.  

I highly recommend Gary Pomerantz's Their Life's Work, for Pittsburghers, for pro football fans, and for all those who appreciate fine character studies of some real American characters.

P.S.  Super Steeler trivia:  Can you name the 22 players who received four 1970s Super Bowl rings?  Extra credit:  Which members of the Steelers empire have more than four SB rings? 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Raise the Minimum Wage

It's another example of the "he said/he said" journalism.

In an article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on January 8, Walter Williams, a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, writes, "There's little debate among academic economists about the effect of minimum wages.  University of California, Irvine, economist David Neumark has examined more than 100 major academic studies on the minimum wage.  He reports that 85 percent of the studies 'find a negative employment effect on low-skilled workers.'"

In an article in the Washington Post on January 4, Mike Konczal, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, says "Some studies [on the minimum wage], notably those led by U Mass Amherst economist Arin Dube, argue that there is no adverse employment effects from small increases in the minimum wage.  Other studies, notably those lead by University of California, Irvine, economist David Neumark, argue there is an adverse effect."

As Speaker of the House John Boehner put it last year, "When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens?  You get less of it."  Democrats across the aisle disagree strongly.  

So what is one to make of recent proposals to raise the minimum wage?

Well, somebody out there in these united states must like the idea.  USA Today, doing what it does best--gather data from all across the country--reported on December 30 that 13 states put into effect raises to the minimum wage in their jurisdiction on January 1, 2014.  On that day, state minimum wages will be higher than the federal requirement of $7.25 an hour in 21 states.  Here are the states with 2014 increases:

$7.50 -- Missouri
$7.90 -- Arizona
$7.90 -- Montana
$7.93 -- Florida
$7.95 -- Ohio
$8.00 -- Colorado
$8.00 -- New York
$8.00 -- Rhode Island
$8.25 -- New Jersey
$8.70 -- Connecticut
$8.73 -- Vermont
$9.10 -- Oregon
$9.32 -- Washington

In California, the minimum wage will go to $9.00 on July 1, and to $10.00 in 2016.  Nine states have tied the minimum wage to increases in inflation.  Several other states, and the District of Columbia, have serious proposals in their legislatures to raise the minimum wage in 2014, with good chances of most passing.  

In the same Post article, Konczal goes on to say that economists -- even opponent Neumark -- do agree on one thing:  "They all tend to think that raising the minimum wage would reduce poverty."  Their surveys suggest raising the minimum wage 10 percent (say from $7.25 to near $8.00) would reduce the number of people living in poverty 2.4 percent.  To $10.10, that could mean lifting 4.6 million people out of poverty.  Some studies show little or no job loss; some up to 1% increase in unemployement.  Konczal's conclusion:  "There are significant benefits [to raising the minimum wage], whatever the costs....A higher minimum wage will lead to a significant boost in incomes for the worst off in the bottom 30th percent of income, while having no impact on the median household.

When low-paid workers get more money for their work, they and their families benefit.

In all this recent debate, the voice of the Catholic Church has been mostly silent.  But for decades we lead the way.  As far back as 1906 Father John A. Ryan, a seminary professor from Minnesota, proposed a minimum wage for workers.  He would live to see it enacted for the nation in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938.  Over the next several decades, the bishops' arm in Washington advocated strenuously for increase in the minimum wage, along with labor unions.  I don't think it a stretch to say that when the minimum wage was highest, the gap in income inequality was lowest.

The reason for this advocacy is neatly summarized in two statements for economic justice by the U.S. bishops issued in 1996.

  • A fundamental moral measure of any economy is how the poor and vulnerable are fairing.
  • All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits, to decent working conditions as well as to organize and join unions or other associations. 

Now "the just wage" is not "the minimum wage."  In fact (if you give me 20 minutes to lecture you) I can explain how they differ.  But to get to the just wage (which also includes medical benefits, social security, vacation time and other benefits) you have to start somewhere.  And a minimum wage does that, providing a (too low) floor for almost all employers to begin their compensation for work.

I'm glad to see these increases in the minimum wage in various states, counties and cities.   These are baby steps to address the income inequality in our country, and to help those on the lowest ladders of employment.   If the U.S. House of Representatives will not lead, then let the various other jurisdictions do what is best for their citizens.